I am a good Chinese girl. To many, I will always be a good Chinese girl. Girl, because society can’t help but infantilise women. Chinese—not Malaysian Chinese, because Malaysia is just a nearby holiday destination. Not Australian, because I don’t have the right skin colour to be ‘Australian’. And good, because I am part of the model minority.
Originating in America in the 1960s, the phrase ‘model minority’ was first used to describe Asian Americans during the ascension of the civil rights movement there. At that time, both phrase and myth were weaponised against the African American population in an attempt to convince Americans that racism was not responsible for many of the injustices inflicted upon them. Such a mentality persists to this day—even now, Asian Americans are used as a wedge group against black and Latino Americans, thanks to their perceived position as ‘good migrants’.
There are similarities between the ways in which the model minority myth has manifested in America and Australia. It has been used to portray Asian Australians as upstanding Australian citizens, as examples to other ‘troublesome’ migrants, to keep them in line. It has been used to drive a wedge between migrants and First Nations peoples, to distract us from the drastic inequalities that still exist between them and the rest of the Australian population. But as with all things race-related in Australia, we are not very good at talking about it, or even recognising it in the first place, so its effects are far more wide-ranging than they may seem.
The model minority myth perpetuates stereotypes about Asian Australians: that we are all good at maths, all have tiger parents who won’t take anything less than an A, so consequently, all excel academically and are forced to learn a musical instrument from an impossibly young age. We are all studying to be lawyers or doctors or dentists or some other profession that will make us a lot of money. We are all meek and submissive—especially the women—and even though there are those of us out there who are supposedly domineering and seductive, we can ultimately be tamed. We are quiet, obedient. We don’t complain. We keep our heads out of trouble.
But the model minority is just that, a myth, because Asianness is not a monolith—Asia is much more than East Asia. It is a myth because these traits have been used to argue for the successful integration of migrants into Australian society. It is a myth because it is used to perpetrate the image of Australia as ‘happy’, ‘multicultural’, free of racism, and to deny the atrocities committed against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the name of colonialism.
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My parents are the perfect example of what it looks like to be part of the model minority. My mother started her own optometry business in the heart of Sunnybank, and has been running it herself for the past 26 years. It’s still going strong. When I was born, my father became a stay-at-home dad, and looked after my sister and me until we graduated from high school. My parents always paid their taxes, never claimed any welfare, and never complained (not in public, at least). We lived in a big two-storey house in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, with palm trees and a brick letterbox out the front, and a cubby-house and a pool out the back. All we were missing was a white picket fence.
I’m sure they didn’t intend to be seen this way. Working hard, saving well and keeping themselves out of trouble are traits drummed into them by virtue of their upbringing, and are arguably even part of traditional Chinese culture. They instilled these values in us, too, but I’m sure they didn’t mean for these generally positive traits to be used against them and their children. My parents made a conscious decision to leave Malaysia, where all of their family and friends lived, to come to Australia to start a family of their own. In doing so, I’m sure they were definitely aware of the racism that existed in this country they had decided to call home—they studied here in the eighties, after all. Maybe they thought that if their children did the right thing, were good Australians, they would escape that racism. No such luck. White Australia sends clear messages to the model minority. Here are the rules.
We want to you to do well. We want you to be functioning, useful members of society—but only to a certain point. Once you cross that invisible boundary, you’re fair game.
You must assimilate (or naturalise or integrate or whatever the politically correct term is now), but keep yourselves in check. That includes staying quiet, even if you think there’s something you should speak out about.
You should contribute to society in a meaningful way, but don’t you dare take our jobs or our university scholarships or our land or our houses.
You should know your place: high enough in the hierarchy to be paraded around as an example, but not high enough to eclipse those in charge.
If you do follow all these rules, we’ll leave you alone (for now). We’ll target and demonise another minority instead.
• • •
As a child I didn’t have a name for that ever-present pressure to succeed. I just knew there was something snapping at my heels, always pushing me to go one step further, something that made me feel guilty if I missed a mark on an exam. At the time, I thought it was just my parents putting unnecessary pressure on me to perform. But the older I get, the more I wonder how much of that really came from my parents, and how much came from the desire to uphold this image of the model minority that I had subconsciously absorbed from the messaging that surrounded me.
When I look back on my childhood, I realise it’s not just adults who subscribe to the model minority myth. Children are fed lines and ideals from the media and those around them, which are internalised and regurgitated in more harmful ways than adults could ever imagine. I have fielded taunts and jabs and seemingly innocuous comments since I was young—everything from the classic ‘go back to where you came from’ to ‘oh, you have big eyes!’ and it’s why I now have an almost rehearsed response to any stereotype that might be directed at me (‘oh, you’re Asian, you must be good at maths’, ‘ha ha, ching chong’). I either ignore them or laugh them off—I’ve learned that for me, it’s easiest to deal with this sort of thing by turning it into a half-hearted joke. I didn’t—and still don’t—like confrontation, and what can you really say when some of the stereotypes being spat at you are true?
The model minority myth, then, is more insidious than at first glance, both socially and personally. When I was younger, it batted its eyelashes when I won awards, and berated me when I messed up. I can still feel it now. These days it reminds me I’m not good enough because I didn’t get first class honours, because I don’t have a ‘professional’ job that directly relates to my degree. It also reminds me of the casual racism that is rampant throughout Australian society—the model minority myth may have potential employers thinking I am hardworking and will stay out of trouble, but the fact remains that even though we might have the same qualifications, I will need to submit more applications than my white Australian counterparts just to get one job interview. Regardless of its manifestations, it is never too far away.
The myth tells you if you just work hard and keep your head down, you can live the Australian dream, whatever that means. Presumably it includes a well-paying job, a family (with children, of course) and a house of some description. It tells you if you follow the rules, white Australia will accept you as Australian. It’s a myth in this way, too. As long as you look different, there is no way you will ever be truly accepted.
This is most obvious when it comes to the number of people with Asian descent who hold positions of power in Australia. There are only three politicians of Asian descent in the Australian Parliament. In 2013 the Diversity Council of Australia discovered that 1.9 per cent of executive managers and 4.2 per cent of directors of Australian companies are of Asian background (based on names only), despite the fact that people with Asian backgrounds comprise nearly 10 per cent of the Australian population.
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The model minority myth has also led to the creation of an East Asian privilege in Australia. I look Chinese, so white Australians can ‘place’ me. They think they know ‘my people’, and because of the model minority myth, they are led to believe the best of me—even if they’re still afraid that those pesky foreign Chinese investors are going to take all of their money and investments. ‘Growing up Asian in Australia’ or ‘What it’s like to be Asian in Australia’ panels have been quite popular recently, but they have also been dominated by those of East Asian descent, and Australians with South Asian and South-East Asian backgrounds are consistently underrepresented in most if not all industries. This makes me ask myself the question: have I unwittingly contributed to a tiered system of Asianness in Australia because of the way I look, because of my background? Quite possibly.
In this sense, the model minority myth works in my ‘favour’—I am a more acceptable type of Asian. While this doesn’t cancel out the casually racist questions and comments I get (‘Where are you really from?’ and ‘You speak quite good English!’), it means I see myself better represented in basically all facets of Australian life, and it’s easier for people to believe I might just be one of them, Australian.
White Australia is more accustomed to people like me. On the surface, white Australia also likes to believe it has welcomed us into the fold. You’re one of us, they say. You should feel grateful. But tokenistic representation is not enough—and neither is ‘representation’ as some sort of thank you for conforming to the standards that have been arbitrarily set for us. The model minority myth continues to engender such tokenisation, and I am afraid that like all things typically Australian, if we ignore it for long enough, its messages will simply be absorbed into the mainstream.
I understand the desire for acceptance on the part of our parents and those of our parents’ generation, especially considering the history of the White Australia policy and the hostile environment generated by the supposed threat of the ‘yellow peril’. And in some ways, many of us are still looking for that acceptance too—to be seen as Australian and not just as stereotyped representatives of our races. But subscribing to the model minority myth brings about a new, different type of racism. And as an East Asian I need to ask myself, am I, are we, so hungry for acceptance that we are willing to leave our peers behind? If so, what does that say about us?
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It’s only over the past year or so that I’ve realised the extent of the privilege I hold in Australia as a settler, and by virtue of being Chinese—with my East Asian ethnicity. And so I’ve been asking questions of myself, of the benefits I reap and the privilege I hold by being seen as part of Australia’s model minority.
In many ways I have done everything right. I am relatively well spoken, university educated, have a full-time job, and run a small business on the side. According to white Australia, I have followed all the rules. I am a functioning, useful member of Australian society. I have, no doubt, at some point in my life, been used as an example of a ‘good Australian’, a ‘good migrant’. I am, unintentionally, a participant in an oversimplified social construct that can only see people within a dichotomy of good and evil based on their race or appearance alone.
The realisation that I am part of such a construct—unwilling as I may be—is unsettling. It should be. I wonder what life would be like for me and my peers if such social pressure did not exist, if we didn’t feel that we had to uphold these images or standards that have been imposed upon us. Would we be willing to take more risks? Would we feel less constrained by what we thought society expected us to be? And out of that comes a darker, more upsetting question: does my complicity in perpetuating the myth that is the model minority mean white Australia has won? Does it mean I have successfully assimilated, that I’m ready to be a ‘born again’ Australian?
I don’t think so. At least, I hope not. I don’t think white Australia has won, because I’m still here, trying to use my voice and my privilege to provide spaces for those who are less fortunate. And if white Australia is going to see and label me as a ‘good migrant’, I may as well do something useful with it. I may as well make art and kick up a fuss and fight for the issues I care about—fight for my peers. But it is still disconcerting that I am in this position in the first place. Sometimes I feel like I have fallen into a neatly set trap—a trap that was supposed to get me to act in a certain way. A trap I wasn’t able to see because I was too busy trying to figure out what exactly it means to be Australian, or Asian Australian, or a member of the (Malaysian-)Chinese diaspora in Australia.
I don’t see myself as having assimilated, or integrated, or naturalised, and I hope I never do. To be honest, I don’t want to blend into a society that ignores its violent colonial history, and continues to mistreat and disrespect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But the fact remains—I am Australian. Maybe not in the way that white Australia wants, but that shouldn’t matter. I shouldn’t be considered a substandard or second-class Australian because of my race. I shouldn’t have to prove my nationality based on a set of arbitrarily set social standards and rules. But it seems as if being part of the model minority implies that I have ascended to these lofty standards, that I have successfully assimilated.
This attitude is interesting, because we don’t use the term ‘assimilation’ any more in Australia. Or, at least, we don’t like to. But those same ideas—wanting those who are seen as Other to conform to dominant ideologies—have simply been repackaged and resold, and it is easy to see how the continued propagation of the model minority myth is another, nicer way of encouraging migrant assimilation into white Australian society. It is worth mentioning and repeating that the struggles I face as the child of East Asian settlers in Australia are different to those experienced by children of other migrant minorities, and more importantly, those experienced by First Nations peoples. And despite these struggles, I still benefit from and hold a privilege by being perceived as an example of Australia’s model minority.
The next logical question is, then, what can I do with this privilege? How can I harness it for the benefit of others, rather than contributing to or exacerbating any harmful effects it may cause?
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The model minority myth is dangerous in that it is a self-sustaining feedback loop. It sends particular messages to those who belong to ethnic minorities about how they should behave, pushes them so they behave that way, then makes examples of them to encourage others to follow suit. This loop has led us to a place where we are not seen as individuals, but rather, as representatives of our races. It has led to ‘Asians are good at maths and bad at English’, alongside many other stereotypes Asian Australians continue to endure.
The harm done by the model minority myth means we need to work to break this loop, to insert a block somewhere so that this wheel does not continue to turn for another generation. And in some ways this starts with us—those of us who are seen as part of the model minority, those of us with the privilege that this brings in the grand scheme of Australian society. We need to stand up for those who are not so fortunate. We need to create more opportunities for people from a diverse range of backgrounds—and by diverse I mean truly diverse, not this tokenised definition of diversity that seems to be prevalent in Australia. We need to listen to those in our communities, as well as those in other marginalised communities, and support each other, instead of trying to compete with each other. We need to make sure that we’re not too busy unconsciously chasing this label of belonging to the ‘model minority’, to be accepted by white Australia, that we don’t have time or space to care about those around us.
In the Asian-Australian community—and in particular, the Chinese-Australian community, breaking down the model minority myth means teaching our children and our peers that working in a particular industry or making lots of money should not be the only measures of success. It is and will be a slow process of unlearning and relearning, but it is one way of challenging the stereotypes that are foisted upon us from a relatively young age. Such a process may be difficult for older Asian Australians, but I am pleased to see that many second- and third-generation Asian Australians are starting to learn that they don’t have to subscribe to Australia’s model minority to succeed, and that success comes in many forms, not just those dictated by the society in which they live.
And while there is work to be done in our communities to dismantle the model minority myth, the onus does not and should not lie entirely with us. White Australia needs to change its attitude towards those it deems to be Other, and take real responsibility for the heinous acts it has committed in its history towards migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Maybe then white Australia will stop seeing us as second-best, sub-par citizens of a country that is not even rightfully theirs. Maybe then I will be seen as more than just a good Chinese girl. •
Yen-Rong Wong is a Brisbane-based writer of nonfiction, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine devoted to publishing and championing the work of Asian-Australian writers and artists.